Monday, September 18, 2006

Musing on The Protector

Just went to see The Protector last night, starring international action star Tony Jaa.

Jaa, who is from Thailand, first shot onto people's radar with Ong Bak, an incredibly kinetic high-action film about a young man from the country who has to go to Bangkok to recover a stolen, sacred Buddha head from the bad guys while enlisting the help of his cousin who now lives in the city as a wily con-man and general scoundrel.

Think Country Mouse, City Mouse with kick-boxing and the Buddha and you've got the basic plot. It was a very charming film with a big sense of humor.

And if it works the first time around, why not try it again? And undoubtedly, again.

In this latest film, Tony Jaa once more takes on the role of a humble man, this time as a protector of the elephants and a master of Muay Thai who must go to Australia to rescue his precious elephants from the bad guys.

The short take-away? Don't mess with elephants.

Thai comedian Petchtai Wongkamlao, who was a riot in Ong Bak, is also back this time around.

In the version currently circulating around the US, the editing seems very abrupt and many may consider it off-putting, but I think Thai cinema is largely experimenting with developing its own rules for cinematic language.

In one case, for example, we see an almost immediate switch from 'The elephant is kidnapped' to 'the kidnappers being kicked through a window.' In American cinema, we would have seen a lengthy exposition of Tony Jaa tracking them down, beating up a bunch of low-level thugs on the way or something.

Here, we just cut right to the chase. And why not?

The Protector isn't a terribly complex movie, nor does it pretend to be even remotely realistic. But hey, we're not going into this expecting Shakespeare or Scorsese.

The Protector IS politically insensitive in the stereotypes it presents about the Chinese, resorting to cartoon caricatures that are drawn straight from classic Dragon Lady motifs.

Given, however, many of East Asia's own stereotypes about Thailand in film (Such as The Eye or The Legend of Speed) even to the near-present day, it may be seen by some as an excusable reversal, or an example of an interesting international film dialogue in which Europe and America are merely bystanders for a change.

When The Protector is thrilling, however, (and those thrills come quite often) it's amazing.

Sure, sometimes the plot makes about as much sense as Tom Cruise's Mission Impossible, but The Protector reminds us what real action can look like, as opposed to the usual CGI-enhanced, MTV-style glam fighting that usually passes for 'action' in today's Hollywood blockbusters.

If Hollywood action heroes rarely get their butts handed to them, here, Tony Jaa presents heroes who frequently run into more powerful adversaries, and for whom there is still a sense of danger, that feeling that even if Tony makes it to the end, it won't be without a lot of bruising. And that's interesting and refreshing to see again.

It's like watching the oldest James Bond films as opposed to the later ones, where the action and fighting became routine and cartoonish.

Personally, I still prefer Ong Bak as far as a coherent narrative, reasonably deep characters with good interaction, and amazing action sequences, but if you're looking for a glimpse at a rising star, Tony Jaa's your man.

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